At first glance, the Tour de France may seem like it is all about winning, but for many riders surviving can be deemed just as much of a success. When the race heads into the mountain regions of the Alps and the Pyrenees, the riders less suited to that terrain will celebrate making the time cut as if they were first over the line.
Mark Cavendish – who went on to win the maillot vert and equal Eddy Merckx’s record for Tour stage wins – did exactly that when he arrived in Tignes on stage nine of the 2021 edition. Arnaud Démare and Bryan Coquard, two of the Manx missile’s potential rivals for the points jersey, were not so lucky.
Arriving at the finish line outside the stage’s time limit means elimination from the Tour, a fate no rider wants to face. So, what is the time cut, and how is it calculated at the Tour de France?
Tour de France time cut explained
The time cut is a ruling within Grand Tours to ensure that riders don’t take it too easy on a stage in order to save their energy for later down the line. There are two parts to deciding the time cut for a stage – the difficulty of the stage and the average speed of the winning rider.
Each stage along the Tour’s route is given a coefficient of difficulty, from one to six, by the race organiser ASO ahead of the Grand Départ. Generally, a sprint stage that doesn’t include much climbing will be given a coefficient of one or two, whilst a mountaintop finish, such as stage seven of the 2022 edition that ended on La Super Planche des Belles Filles, will be awarded a higher coefficient on the scale. For each coefficient, there is a range of percentages corresponding to the winning rider’s average speed on the stage.
On stage nine of the 2021 Tour, where Cavendish narrowly survived, the average speed of the winning rider, AG2R Citroën’s Ben O’Connor, was 32.596km/h. The stage was given a coefficient of five which meant that 14% of the Australian’s time – 37 minutes and 20 seconds – was given as the time limit for riders to get across the line.
If O’Connor, who finished the stage over five minutes ahead of his nearest rival, had somehow completed the stage with a jaw-dropping average speed of 35.5km/h, then 17% of his winning time would be deemed the time cut. In this instance, French sprinter Coquard would be spared by just over a minute whereas Démare would still be eliminated by a mere second.
It’s important to note that only time trials can be given a coefficient of six for difficulty – with a flat rate of 25% of the winner’s time being marked as the time cut.
Stages given a coefficient of one can have a time cut of just 4% of the winning rider’s time if the average speed is low enough. Meanwhile, the range of percentages available increases with a stage’s difficulty – coefficient five stages can reach 18% of the first rider’s time for the time cut, but can go no lower than 10%.
Essentially, the general idea is that if the stage is ridden at a fast pace, the time cut will be more forgiving, whereas if the pace is slower, there will be less mercy shown to the quick men in the gruppetto. The last group’s main goal on mountain stages is to beat the time cut – wise heads within the bunch will know the average speed required to get across the line safely and they normally execute their plan well.
However, it isn’t always as simple as calculations on the power meter – if a rider is injured following a crash, victim of a mechanical, or simply not feeling it in the legs, their Tour could be over. Of course, there are certain scenarios where the race organisers can take matters into their own hands.
Can riders be reinstated after missing the time cut?
The commissaires’ jury can reinstate riders in exceptional circumstances, after informing the race directors. These decisions are based on factors including the average speed of the stage; the point at which an incident or crash may have occurred; the effort made by delayed riders to finish the stage; and the possible blockage of roads along the route.
One of the most famous scenarios of this in the Tour’s history came about in 2011, when 88 riders rolled across the line outside of the time limit atop of Galibier Serre-Chevalier. The time cut was given as 33 minutes and seven seconds after stage winner Andy Schleck lifted his arms aloft at the finish line – Cavendish was among the group of riders who missed the cut by over two minutes that day. However, the riders had strength in numbers.
The race jury did not eliminate the 88-strong bunch due to their size and the impact it would have on the rest of the Tour. All of the riders, including the green jersey holder Cavendish, were docked 20 points from the sub-classifications, but this would’ve been a small price to pay for his journey to the Champs-Élysées being allowed to continue.
Riders that are reinstated into the race after missing a time cut must forgo any points they have accumulated in the points or mountains competitions so far.